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My general observation about religions is that they have this fundamental assumption of fear of something. For example, fear of punishment or getting into hell is present in many religions. Buddhism too has this fear of rebirth in lower realms, but also a fear of getting into sadness (dukkha?)

These days people of modern outlook tend to discount such fears as childish and practically useless. While a philosophy that distinguishes between harmful and beneficial will still be valid to a general society even after religions disappear.

How can Buddhism be helpful to a secular society that does not have any irrational fear of hell or getting into sadness? Additionally, how can Buddhism be useful to a practical society concerned with real harm and benefit?

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Maybe you could say it's an aversion-to-suffering-based religion. –  neubau Jul 8 at 14:30
Do you go to Disneyland because you fear not having fun? I think this question makes some incorrect assumptions about motivation. –  Paul Draper Jul 8 at 15:26
I didn't make any assumptions. I had a discussion today with few Chinese ppl and Indians with different views. This question was based on the way they think about Buddhism. –  kalan Jul 8 at 15:38
It's one of the skillful means. I just read a sutra that mentioned that when teaching, a Bodhisattva will use fear, reason, etc, as is appropriate for each person. I'll try to track down the exact quote. –  MatthewMartin Jul 9 at 12:36
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10 Answers 10

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According to Theravada Buddhism, fear is based on anger. As per the Visuddhimagga-Tika:

na bhāyati ñāṇassa bhāyanākārena appavattanato. paṭighacittuppādavasena hi bhāyanaṃ, ñāṇaṃ pana bhāyitabbavatthuṃ bhāyitabbanti yāthāvato jānāti.

It doesn't fear - because of the non-occurrence of the condition of fearing in this knowledge [knowledge of fearsomeness]. For, fearing is through the influence of a mind of aversion, but this knowledge knows, of a thing to be feared, merely: "it is to be feared".

Vism-Tika 21.3

The Visuddhimagga itself (quoted above in bold) provides a good explanation of the difference between knowledge and fear:

But does the knowledge of appearance as terror [itself] fear or does it not fear? It does not fear. For it is simply the mere judgment that past formations have ceased, present ones are ceasing, and future ones will cease. Just as a man with eyes looking at three charcoal pits at a city gate is not himself afraid, since he only forms the mere judgment that all who fall into them will suffer no little pain;—or just as when a man with eyes looks at three spikes set in a row, an acacia spike, an iron spike, and a gold spike, he is not himself afraid, since he only forms the mere judgment that all who fall on these spikes will suffer no little pain;—so too the knowledge of appearance as terror does not itself fear; it only forms the mere judgment that in the three kinds of becoming, which resemble the three charcoal pits and the three spikes, past formations have ceased, present ones are ceasing, and future ones will cease.

Path of Purification, XXI.32

The important distinction here is that fear itself is unwholesome, so Buddhist practice is for becoming free from fear. Unfortunately, apart from never being subject to that which is fearsome, the only way to become completely free from fear is to practice so that one is no longer afraid of that which is fearsome (i.e. by freeing oneself from attachment to the objects about which one is afraid).

So, rather than practicing religious practices to avoid situations of which one is afraid, the point of Buddhism is to practice in a way that allows one to remove one's fear of such situations. The premise is the same; namely that one is afraid of certain situations. The difference is in how one relates to this fact. In regards to bhayañāṇa (knowledge of fearsomeness), the expectation is that the knowledge will help one to let go of one's fears, once one realizes that there is no real, lasting escape for one with fear.

The claim that non-religious people can somehow be free from fear without such practice depends in a large part on whether there is indeed life after death; still, it is most certain that those who scoff at the fears of hell and the afterlife would still experience great fear in this life if they were to meet with what is truly fearsome (disaster, danger, etc.) and so they have not really accomplished the goal by simply discarding fear of that which they don't believe to exist.


As for the criticism that Buddhism uses fear as a means of encouraging proper practice, I suppose this might be true conventionally; a person who does something not knowing the consequences of that act ought to be reminded of the danger. In a conventional sense, that may bring fear to the individual. But the individual need not be afraid, they should simply avoid the activity.

As to your additional questions, fear of hell is only irrational if there is no hell. Fear is always detrimental, though, and in fact a prime reason for being reborn in hell; only those with minds inclining towards anger will suffer from fear. Buddhism helps one become free from anger and thus fear; whether there is an afterlife or not, this is surely a beneficial thing to modern society.

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Bhante, can you please explain further the connection between fear and anger? I will ask a new question if that is more appropriate. –  Adamokkha Jul 9 at 12:37
@Adamokkha it's a curious subject - I got in an argument about this with a lay man who insisted that fear had nothing to do with anger, until I found the Vism Tika reference. There's not much to say except that fear is based on aversion. You can't fear something you like or are indifferent towards. The fear is an aversion towards something, probably accompanied by anxiety. The problem, I suppose, is that they are just words - the abhidhamma admits no state of "fear", since it is a conglomerate of ultimate states. –  yuttadhammo Jul 11 at 14:01
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I am very new to Buddhism, but the way I understand it thus far is as follows. I dont think there is a fear within Buddhism of hell or being sad, rather its recognizing the reality of this sadness and misery forming part of our daily lives. What Buddhism provides are various methods to cope with this fear and to rather see the truth behind the sadness, fear or whatever emotion it is. When you see the true nature of a situation, you realize that there is no need for fear or sadness.

At least, that is how I understand it, as I said, I am a complete novice, and this is my first post :)

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I hope I understand your question properly, as I try to answer it.

Buddhism is about the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering and the path of that cessation. So it's useful to those that do not want to suffer in the Buddhist sense of the word, and believe that the path of Buddhism can relieve them of that.

Fear is not a requirement, one does not have to fear suffering, hell or bad karma, one simply has to see that it is suffering and decide that is not the way life is best lived.

In the same way one does not have to fear prison to not commit a crime, but simply to understand the crime is wrong and decide that is better not to live like that, to use a simile.

Other than that Buddhism can offer specific practices that are useful without having to be Buddhist to profit from it:

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Your first answer tells me that Buddhism is a solution to understand fear and suffering. Your usage of simile is understandable. However, I still can't clearly relate the second and third paragraphs. –  kalan Jul 8 at 13:51
Hmm, I'll think about a better way to get my point across. –  DirkM Jul 8 at 13:55
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I'm relatively certain any Zen master or Buddhist monk you might talk to would say "No". In Buddhism, hell is [generally] not thought of as a physical place - it a condition caused by ignorance, hatred and attachment.

Take the concept: "If you kick a puppy, you'll go to hell." From a Christian perspective, God will send you to hell for kicking the puppy. From a Buddhist perspective, the action (karma) of you kicking the puppy will trigger a social backlash, guilt, and a chain of other negative events that may put your mind in a hell state. Because of your hatred (at the puppy), ignorance (that kicking a puppy will have consequences) or attachment (to the rug the puppy peed on), you may end up suffering because of this action.

So how can a society behave with no concept of going to hell or external judgment? In short, any attempt to answer that question will fail. Humans are imperfect. They will always be imperfect, under an all-seeing god or under a Buddhist philosophy. The difference, I think, is that theistic religions rely on faith for cause and effect to be dealt, while Buddhism says that cause and effect is directly observable at all times. Through discipline, you can gain some level of freedom from the suffering that comes from it. But if you choose not to, then that's ok too - good luck! (Though, we'd prefer if you at least didn't do harm)

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You will be surprised, but Buddhism is that very same "philosophy that distinguishes between harmful and beneficial". The notions of kusala (good, skilfull, healthy, conducive to comfort) and akusala (bad, incompetent, unwholesome, conducive to trouble) are central to Buddhism:

"Abandon what is unskillful (akusala), monks. It is possible to abandon what is unskillful. If it were not possible to abandon what is unskillful, I would not say to you, 'Abandon what is unskillful.' But because it is possible to abandon what is unskillful, I say to you, 'Abandon what is unskillful.' If this abandoning of what is unskillful were conducive to harm and pain, I would not say to you, 'Abandon what is unskillful.' But because this abandoning of what is unskillful is conducive to benefit and pleasure, I say to you, 'Abandon what is unskillful.'

"Develop what is skillful (kusala), monks. It is possible to develop what is skillful. If it were not possible to develop what is skillful, I would not say to you, 'Develop what is skillful.' But because it is possible to develop what is skillful, I say to you, 'Develop what is skillful.' If this development of what is skillful were conducive to harm and pain, I would not say to you, 'Develop what is skillful.' But because this development of what is skillful is conducive to benefit and pleasure, I say to you, 'Develop what is skillful.'" -- Kusala Sutta AN 2.19

In fact, Buddhism is so radically practical (much more radically than other philosophies) that it does not shy away from using tricks, like the fear of hell etc. because they too are kusala, conducive to benefit. Such tricks are called upaya ("skilfull means"). This is similar to how parents use tricks to protect their very young children who don't yet understand reason.

But just like upbringing the children is not limited to tricks, there is a lot more to Buddhism than upaya. What do we teach children? Proper behavior, Deep knowledge, and Hard work. Why do we teach them this? Because it will help them in their life.

Similarly, in Buddhism, we don't just scare people with hell. We teach them how to control their mind. Why? Because it helps them with their life! When mind is untrained, it gets easily obsessed by ideas. When mind is obsessed by ideas, it gets inflamed with emotions. Getting inflamed with emotions, one does not know what's good / what's bad. Then one starts acting based on this confused understanding of good and bad. And then one hurts oneself and others!

And vice versa, when mind is trained, it is not easily obsessed ==> not blinded with emotions ==> it clearly sees what's good / what's bad ==> and therefore it can act well. Very practical.

That's why they say Buddhism is good in the beginning, good in the middle and good in the end. When naive people follow it as religion, without understanding why, it protects them from harm -- this is good in the beginning. When people practice it seriously, taming their mind, it helps them handle all kind of life problems and increases social harmony -- this is good in the middle. Finally, when they solve the problem of Life-and-Death and achieve Completion -- this is good in the end.

And how do you tame the mind? First, by watching it continuously, every second of every minute of every hour, and identifying any sign of pathological clinging. Clinging to material possession, clinging to relationships and respect, clinging to comfort, well-being, stability, clinging to principles and ideals, clinging to fairness, clinging to skills, talents, intellect, success, control, clinging to plans for the future, clinging to spirituality, clinging to Buddhism, and even clinging to not-clinging! When you make anything all-important, you lose it and get very upset -- that's pathological clinging. As soon as you notice clinging, you must let go ASAP, otherwise it will get you in trouble. The feeling when you let go of clinging is like you are sobering up from liquor.

Second, mind is tamed by watching it for any signs of ego-motivated behavior. Whenever you notice yourself doing something seemingly right, but secretly (even from yourself) showing off, or defending your fault, or retaliating -- this is ego-motivated behavior. As soon as you notice even a little flavor of that, you need to surrender your ego to the world, which is acting as your teacher at that moment. This feels scary, similar to skydiving.

As you train like this very carefully, stalking yourself and keeping your mind free from even the smallest clinging or ego-motivated thought, within 5-10 years you will notice a huge positive difference in your life. This is basic training, this is how my teachers taught me -- as you see, it is very practical.

Now, to address the last part of your question, about "fear of getting into sadness" -- yes, Buddhism very much depends on the fact that people don't want to be sad, that people are afraid of suffering. This is how Buddhism defines good and bad, or kusala and akusala: good is what leads to happiness, and bad is what leads to suffering. This basic difference serves as the gasoline for the engine of Buddha-Yana (vehicle of awakening). One thing that Buddha was strongly against is nihilistic philosophy that denies distinction between good and bad.

So yes, Buddhism can be very useful to a modern practical society, but we need to go deeper, beyond the tricks of upaya and into the real practice of liberating the mind from pathological clinging and egoistic neuroses, and train it to not get obsessed with ideas and blinded with emotions, so it can clearly see what's good / what's bad for oneself and for everybody.

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Thanks! A clear and detailed answer. –  kalan Jul 9 at 15:14
Do you want to flag it as accepted answer then? ;) –  Andrei Volkov Jul 9 at 16:56
Is it possible to have two accepted answers? –  kalan Jul 9 at 17:01
ha-ha too funny :) never mind! –  Andrei Volkov Jul 9 at 17:53
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Something that doesn't seem to have been covered so far.

There is a perfectly legitimate fear or terror that comes right out of a practice that has made some progress in the development of mindfulness. It is the result of developing clarity into the transient nature of phenomena and thus an encouraging result.

The deluded mind is a mind that identifies with whatever is currently running through it: "I think, therefore I am". As clarity develops, this fundamental assumption is seriously undermined - an identity crisis - and the result is pure terror.

However, the good news is that as clarity develops further, this terror gives way to a kind of extreme excitement, something akin to rock climbing or sky diving etc. As clarity develops furthermore, it becomes simply good fun, and further still becomes nothing special: just the way things are, in and of themselves.

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I don't think it is. I'm not one for religions anyway as they sect based and that's not what the Buddha taught. His techniques of meditation are "practised" to overcome fear and other defilements. If we don't overcome them then the other option is be unaware of things happening around. Why sleep when you can be awakened to inner reality and hence find complete peace and develop compassion. Just my opinion from personal practice. So no it's not based on fear but yes does use fear as a tool to liberate oneself amongst other defilements.

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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

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To look at it simply....Fear based religion usually serves someone behind it that gains from your fear. Buddhism only serves you because you are the only one that can be your salvation. You are responsible for your own suffering. You are the only one with the power to end your own suffering.

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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

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Well fear is not a bad thing if it is based on some understanding, some facts. Then at last it is not a feat it is an understanding. Buddhism is based on understanding. I'm a Buddhist anyway.

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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

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(Note: I'm not a Buddhist but I do study religions out an interest in evolutionary psychology as it applies to human culture. I know rather a bit about the evolution of different religion across time and throughout the world.)

All religions are based on the premise some sort of supernatural consequence for moral choices which no human can escape. Buddhism is no exception.

All religions have a stick of inescapable supernatural punishment for selfish behavioral choices and most provide a counterbalancing carrot of guaranteed supernatural reward for unselfish behavioral choices. The supernatural consequences provide a governing system on human behavior that functions independent of the individuals belief in their ability to gain materially or to escape the material consequences of their moral choices. Beggars and Kings alike face the same supernatural consequences. Worldly power will not protect one.

In Buddhism, the primary mechanism of consequence is Karma, a sort of automatic moral physics in which every moral action is reflected back on the individual in their next incarnation. Any harm that one causes in this life, is automatically inflicted in ones next life. Conversely, the good that one does in this life automatically improves one's fate in the next incarnation. Karma is clearly a carrot and stick moral enforcement mechanism.

In addition, Buddhism employs the ideas of reward in post-death supernatural states.

Nirvana, the state of eternal existence without self-awareness and thus desire and suffering, is the ultimate goal of all Buddhist. If one is faithful to Buddhist practices, one will eventually obtain enlightenment, understand the illusion of existence and escape, permanently, the wheel of reincarnation and suffering.

One makes Nirvana harder/further to obtain by acts of selfishness, the stick, and makes Nirvana easier/closer to obtain by acts of unselfishness.

In addition Buddhism since the earliest days, has held the concept of Naraka, which in the West is usually interpreted as a Buddhist hell or purgatory. It is an after life in which one is tortured for a vaguely long time, usually thousands of years, as a consequence of one's actions in material life. Clearly a stick. Pure Land Buddhism the predominate sect of Buddhism in the Far East, is so named because of its belief in heaven-like afterlife. Clearly a carrot.

In the contemporary West, the Buddhist heaven and hell analogs are downplayed or dismissed altogether even though they have ancient roots in the religion, and have concentrated almost exclusively on Karma. Even so, a sincere contemporary Buddhist will still moderate their negative impulses out of a fear of inescapable Karmic consequence.

If you were describing the emotions of a contemporary Western Buddhist making a moral decision, it would be far to say the Buddhist makes unselfish decisions because he fears the Karmic consequences of making a selfish decisions. This is functionally identical to Christian making a decision out of a hope for heaven or a fear of hell.

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"Nirvana, the state of eternal existence without self-awareness and thus desire and suffering"? –  Andrei Volkov Jul 9 at 1:02
Which Buddhism? As an unqualified description of all the Buddhisms, this answer falls short. –  MatthewMartin Jul 9 at 12:38
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